Co-Founder of Thrifthouse

Sarah Chieng

Sarah Chieng, MIT student & Thrifthouse CEO, highlights college startups' value and navigating startup life in the Bay for Gen Z's marketplace.

Sarah Chieng (born ‘01) is the cofounder and CEO of Thrifthouse, a secondhand college marketplace with thousands of users. Thrifthouse is an angel-backed startup and was chosen for both the DormRoomFund and Z Fellows accelerator programs. Sarah is currently on a gap semester from MIT, where she studies Computer Science and Math.Sarah spoke with us about her experience moving to the Bay to work on Thrifthouse. Here it is in her words:

👕 What is Thrifthouse? Thrifthouse is a platform for students to buy and sell used items such as clothing and textbooks. The platform offers campus-based marketplaces so students can exchange exclusively with their classmates. We have 252 college campuses using Thrifthouse to date.

👩‍💻 Starting Thrifthouse: The idea for Thrifthouse started out from a hackathon competition. Although we didn’t win, we thought the idea was good enough to build it out into an actual product. We spent the next five months developing the app. We launched at MIT, and within a few weeks, 30% of the student body was on the platform. Then, we expanded Thrifthouse to other colleges.

🚀 Why did you choose the startup life? I’ve always enjoyed creating content and talking to people, but these things don’t align with any career paths, and so I ended up studying Computer Science in college. I love running a startup because it harnesses all my interests in one job, and I get the freedom to decide what I'm doing every day.

📚 Taking a gap semester: Balancing my time was really challenging. On one hand, I wanted to make the most out of my MIT education, and on the other hand, I wanted to give 100% towards building my startup. Switching back and forth between those goals and feeling like I didn't quite reach either of them was super frustrating.

🌉 Why did you move to the Bay Area? Honestly, I feel like not a lot of people at MIT do startup stuff. There weren’t many other students or professors whom we could talk to or get advice from. We decided to move to the Bay to be surrounded by people doing what we’re doing. We currently live with two other startup teams, and it’s been amazing to talk to them and see what they’re doing all day. We’ve also been able to go to a bunch of networking events and meet all sorts of people.

👩‍💼 Most challenging part about being a founder? The hustle is so real. People always say “work smarter, not harder.” At the beginning, I kept wondering if it was normal to be working this hard, or if I just wasn’t doing things the right way. But I’ve learned that sometimes, you just have to work harder.

😕 Most unsexy part of your job? Marketing. Everyday, I have to put myself out there, talk to so many random college students, and make tons of ambassador calls. I feel like I'm being so annoying sometimes.

🚀 Startup trends: Younger, more connected founder communities. There are now so many communities of college student founders, whereas in the past, these communities had been dominated by thirty-year-olds. People are also so accessible nowadays, which has made the startup space much more interconnected.

🤝 How do you make connections? Get your foothold in somewhere, and grow it from there. For me personally, there were lots of people at MIT who are in VCs and big startups who reached out to us when they heard about Thrifthouse. Accelerator programs also help a lot. We did a DormRoomFund program as well as Z Fellows, where we met all of our roommates and a lot of our friends. After getting into these programs, you're in this close-knit community and can meet new people through them. Honestly, I feel like a lot of connections also just come up randomly. For example, a VC reached out to us and then invited us to a party. You just go to more events, meet more people, then go to more events. You'll often go to a party and run into people you’ve met before.

❗️ Best piece of advice? If you can, build a startup in college. A lot of people think, “I'm going to graduate. I’ll work a full-time job for a couple of years, get the hang of adulting, then I'll branch off and create a startup.” While that mindset is totally valid, I actually think the best time to build a startup is during college. For one, colleges have so many resources, it’s unbelievable. Second, there are so many programs out there specifically for college students, and VCs who are looking for young people to support. When you're a college student, you don't really have anything to lose. There's no expectation of you to make money during this time. College is literally four years dedicated to your learning and growth. Worst case scenario, you go back to college, and the opportunity to go down a traditional career path is still there.

tl;dr: Surround yourself with people who are doing the same thing and know how to help. You can’t always work smarter – sometimes, you just have to work harder. Build a startup in college because people are much more willing to help students, and you don’t have as much to lose.

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